South African plants and cultural beliefs
Updated: Sep 25
South Africa is home to a huge variety of plant life, with many plants holding important cultural, medicinal and spiritual values. Bushwise trainer Francois Theron explores the role of South African plants and why this knowledge is important for safari guides.
South Africa is exceptionally rich in plant diversity and accounts for more than 20,000 species – that’s 10% of all plants found on the planet! Not only do we have incredibly high plant biodiversity, we also have great cultural diversity. South African plants are used by many people in their everyday lives for food, medicine, shelter and other necessities.
Ethnobotany is the study of how different cultures use indigenous plants. People have been using plants for thousands of years all over the world, but in recent decades people have increasingly started moving from rural places into urban areas.
We see this across Africa, where people have access to modern healthcare systems and have moved from subsistence farming to cash crop farming. These changes in sociocultural lifestyles have impacted the indigenous knowledge of traditional and medical uses of plants.
In South Africa, over 2,000 plant species have been recorded as used in traditional medicine. There is still a lot left to be documented about these plants and their uses. Although we live in a modern era with medical care being freely available, there is a growing interest in natural and traditional medicines.
Some of the most common South African plant-derived medicines that we learn about on a Bushwise course include quinine, morphine, codeine, aspirin, atropine and reserpine, to name just a few. Other discoveries include anti-cancer drugs like taxol and vincristine that come from the plant Catharanthus roseus, commonly known as the Madagascar periwinkle.
South Africa is a major contributor to world medicine. We supply aloes, which are sold commercially for stomach problems, and buchu, which is used to treat inflammation and fight kidney and liver ailments. Another plant sold commercially is devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), which is used in Germany as supportive therapy for degenerative disorders of the locomotor system.
In a more traditional application, the baobab tree, an iconic African tree, played an important role in the meetings of kings and elders. They would only hold meetings under the baobab tree as they believed the tree’s spirit would guide them in decision making. Another tree that plays an important role in religion is the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa). In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, this tree is the tree of knowledge. In Judaism and Chistianity, it is the tree of good and evil.
Another common and popular tree is the marula. Few people know that this tree has protected species status in South Africa – due in large part to the important role it plays in local communities. Because marula trees are either male or female (the term for this is dioecious), it was commonly believed that drinking an infusion of the bark of the male or female tree could influence whether your baby would be a boy or a girl.
In addition, weddings were traditionally performed beneath the expansive canopy of large marulas. Its fruit was even used to prepare the beer that was consumed at these weddings!
For the field guide and prospective apprentice field guides, it’s of utmost importance to be able to identify these South African plant and tree species. Safari guides must also know their cultural importance and traditional and medicinal use. This knowledge can be used to educate visitors to the African continent and discuss the critical role plants play in our environment, history and culture.
With over 20,000 species, the opportunities for discussion and engaging on the role of plants in South Africa can go on and on. It is our obligation as field guides, safari guides and trail guides to learn and understand these beliefs. We should share this knowledge with people visiting the bush, so they understand the beauty and cultural diversity that this great country thrives on.
Does ethnobotany interest you? Part of our Bushwise Professional Field Guide course is learning about South African plant species. Apply today and learn more!